Written September 2011
Original story posted on the Cloud Forest School | Centro de Educación Creativa website.
One year ago, I made the decision to come to Monteverde, Costa Rica and volunteer with Cloud Forest School for a couple of months. For the past six years, I have been engaged in human rights and anti-genocide activism. I hoped that volunteering with Cloud Forest School/Centro de Educacion Creativa (CEC), a bilingual and environmental education school, would provide me with the additional knowledge and experience in order to become a more effective environmental activist. At the time this decision was made, I was unaware of just how invaluable and powerful my experience as a CEC volunteer would be.
From the beginning, I worked closely with Milton, the kind man in charge of the school’s gardening and reforestation projects. Before working with CEC, Milton worked with the Monteverde Conservation League for twelve years. During his time there, he spearheaded a reforestation project and planted 36,000 trees every year, for five years. Since then, Milton has worked with CEC for eleven years, and the positive impact he has made upon the entire school and its surrounding ecosystem clearly is visible.
Although Milton doesn’t consider himself one, he truly is the school’s medicine man. One day I came to work sick and with a sore throat. Milton immediately left for the greenhouse and came back with a handful of medicinal plants: lemongrass (Sacate Limon) and lemon verbena (Juanilama). He gave me detailed instructions in Spanish of how to make an herbal tea with the two plants. I was better in a couple of days. The medicine man and I, with the help of the CEC students, also recently created a small garden of medicinal plants behind the greenhouse.
Milton even has tried to help rid me of my intense arachnophobia and small fear of other bugs. He explains to me every day how important it is for me to have confidence whenever I encounter insects. On the occasions when we are walking on a forest trail behind the school and we encounter a particularly interesting insect or spider, he will encourage me to pick it up, and usually, I do. And at least once or twice each day, he sneaks up behind me and brushes a twig or leaf on my neck. I freak out and scream, and he laughs. This is one of his many bromas, or jokes.
Yet, the most noticeable characteristic of Milton is his passion, commitment and compassion for Mother Earth. If I had one colon for every time Milton emphasized the importance of environmental conservation, I would be rich. To this empathetic medicine man, the little seedlings he plants are his babies. Just like a human baby, he cares for and nurtures the baby trees until they are magnificent, tall, and full grown.
One of the most profound things I have realized during my experience as a CEC volunteer is that I actually am making a tangible, direct, positive change hands-on. Whether I am collecting acorns with the children, crouching in the dirt planting trees, or raking leaves away from the seedlings in the reforestation area, I am helping the environment. Milton, the CEC students, and I are reducing global climate change, one tree at a time. We are healing Mother Earth with every individual and collective action we take.
However, even more significant than this is the observation I made one day. On this particular day, Milton had asked the kids from one of the classes to take one or two trees each to the reforestation area, plant the trees, and then return to deliver more trees to the reforestation area. As I watched the children walk by me with three or four baby trees overflowing in their hands and huge smiles on their faces, I thought of how special this is. These kids are interacting with nature on the most personal level — they cradle the baby trees, touch them, unwrap the recycled cartons around them, dig holes, and then carefully place the trees in the holes. Subsequently, they compress and move the earth into the holes and around the baby trees, making the trees comfortable in their new home. In the process, these young students discover and pick up spiders, other insects, and newts. They let the spiders and ants crawl all over their hands, they place the newts on one another’s heads, and they gaze at ant nests with wonder and amazement.
Shortly thereafter, the trees with the tasty, sweet and tiny blueberries distract the students and they begin picking the fruit from the trees. And then the same trees distract them even more and they begin to climb them. Worried, I start telling the kids that maybe they should get down from the trees because they could get hurt. One boy looks up at me with a pained and bewildered expression on his face. He looked like a kid who had just been told that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. It upset him that I was trying to tell the kids to stop climbing trees. According to him, tree climbing is their favorite hobby. I should have known that telling CEC students to stop climbing trees is like taking candy away from a toddler. For these children, the pure amusement they derive from nature’s playground and the precious hour working with Milton is equivalent to the amusement most kids receive inside playing video games or during a trip to Disneyland.
As I walked next to a young girl on the forest trail, I asked her if she thinks environmental education and learning about the forest and its animals is important. She responded with a firm and unwavering yes. Milton and the CEC students understand the importance of environmental education and conservation. They also have respect and compassion for the environment. Imagine if all of mankind felt as Milton does that a baby tree is another one of his children and deserves love and care. Or if all humans everywhere marveled at a seemingly inconsequential spider or ant with wonder and admiration, instead of killing the usually harmless insect.
If this healthy mind-set existed among more humans, then we would not have today’s major environmental crises, such as global climate change or the deforestation of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Africa. Virunga National Park in the DRC and the surrounding parks are home to half of the world’s remaining 720 mountain gorillas. The park is being deforested at an unprecedented rate for the production of charcoal as a tragic consequence of the region’s illegal, yet lucrative, charcoal trade. Due to the DRC’s “conflict-charcoal,” the rare mountain gorilla faces extinction.
Especially in today’s world where environmental catastrophes are real and widespread, it is more crucial than ever that we as a society cultivate a notion of respect and compassion for Mother Earth among the younger generations. The solutions to these problems first and foremost lie in a shift in global consciousness. It is the present and future generations whose actions determine not just the state of our planet, but also our ability to live on it.
Thank you Cloud Forest School for instilling respect and compassion for Mother Nature in the young minds of your students. Your work is an inspiration to all of us humans who wish to live in a peaceful, just and sustainable world. My experience volunteering with CEC has made me think, most of all, of the quote from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, “The Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion:” “We put a lot of energy into advancing technology in order to serve our lives better, and we exploit the non-human elements, such as the forests, rivers, and oceans, in order to do so. But as we pollute and destroy nature, we pollute and destroy ourselves as well. The results of discriminating between human and non-human are global warming, pollution, and the emergence of many strange diseases. In order to protect ourselves, we must protect the non-human elements. This fundamental understanding is needed if we want to protect our planet and ourselves.”